You are currently viewing “Asteroid City”

“Asteroid City”

No one goes to a Wes Anderson movie expecting heartfelt melodrama or realistic human emotions and interactions. They go for intricately crafted doll’s house dramas featuring boxes-within-boxes narratives and arch, satirical conundrums. At best, these range from the piercingly acute family portraits of The Royal Tenenbaums (2001) to the bittersweet comedy capers of The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and the delightfully off-the-wall stop-motion animation of Isle of Dogs (2018). At worst, they put the “irk” into “quirky”, with The Darjeeling Limited (2007) and, more recently, The French Dispatch (2021) stretching patience to breaking point.

This latest feature from the world’s most famous corduroy fan may nod cheekily towards the heyday of the Actors Studio (James Dean, Marilyn Monroe et al) but it’s as detachedly Andersonian as ever; a Swiss watch-style meta-puzzle of interlocking stories with a faux-nostalgic, sub-Spielbergian edge and a stellar cast acting like animated mannequins. Fans will doubtless be dazzled by its meticulous imitation-of-life-in-miniature visual aesthetic, yet I swithered between whimsical amusement, mild curiosity and outright irritation.

We open in the boxy black and white of an old-fashioned TV broadcast fronted by Bryan Cranston’s host, inviting us behind the scenes of the titular play. This theatrical work, created by an Arthur Milleresque author Conrad Earp (Ed Norton), is set in the American south-west of the mid-1950s and addresses “infinity and I don’t know what else.”

Cut to the widescreen, ochre-burned hues of the drama-within-the-drama; a Pirandellian fantasy in which colourful characters (who occasionally break character to discuss motivation) converge in a desert settlement comprising a cafe, a gas station, a motel, an observatory and a meteor crater. Everything looks like a set, through which Scalextric-style cops-and-robbers chase at regular intervals. As for the people (starrily played by the likes of Tilda Swinton and Jeffrey Wright), they all speak in the same rapid-fire monotone of Anderson’s authorial voice. In the distance, mushroom clouds explode, indicating nearby nuclear tests, while also distractingly reminding us that Christopher Nolan’s altogether more exciting-sounding Oppenheimer will be in cinemas soon. Hasten the day.

Asteroid City (the town, rather than the play, or the film) is playing host to a gaggle of “junior stargazers and space cadets”. One such is Woodrow Steenbeck (Jake Ryan), AKA Brainiac, whose father, Augie (Jason Schwartzman), has his wife’s ashes in Tupperware, but hasn’t yet told Woodrow and his sisters of their mother’s demise. Augie is a pipe-smoking war photographer whose eye is caught by Midge Campbell (Scarlett Johansson). She’s a glamorous presence with a stargazer daughter, Dinah (Grace Edwards), who generates sparks with Woodrow. Meanwhile, Augie’s father-in-law, Stanley Zak (Tom Hanks), is en route to Asteroid City; as is a spindly alien with designs on the town’s historic space rock, provoking a military lockdown.

All this is captured by cinematographer Robert Yeoman on cameras that pan pointedly from side to side (and occasionally up and down) in a manner reminiscent of the blindfolded crossbow operator from the 1960s/70s TV game show The Golden Shot. Meanwhile, back in east coast TV land, the start-to-finish production story of this “apocryphal fabrication” plays out at the Tarkington theatre, with the same key actors now playing actors, wandering between equally artificial worlds (Broadway meets the west), sometimes deliberately, sometimes accidentally (but always very deliberately).

Anderson and co-writer Roman Coppola litter their dialogue with deadpan cutesy exclamations (“Gadzooks”) and nerdy awkwardness (“I love gravity”), all accompanied by a trademark parade of sandals and pulled-up socks, scary trousers and pressed shirts. Character names nod towards the history of cinema (a Steenbeck, for example, is a celluloid editing machine) but there’s a vacuum-sealed atmosphere of smug modernity that becomes increasingly suffocating. When Johansson tells Schwartzman that their characters are “two catastrophically wounded people who don’t express the depth of our pain because we don’t want to,” it’s hard to know whether to shrug, sympathise, or smirk. Elsewhere, the declaration: “We’re in grief” lands like a flying saucer that has lost the will to fly. Deliberately, presumably.

Big-name cameos come and go (Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Margot Robbie, a washboard-wielding Jarvis Cocker), but when Slim Whitman’s Indian Love Call popped up on the soundtrack, I felt a longing for the indulgent chaos of Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! “You can’t wake up if you don’t fall asleep,” chant the cast. For some viewers of Asteroid City, I doubt that will be much of a problem.